The Functional Equivalent of God (1998)
Victor J. Stenger
Review of The Creator and the Cosmos: How the Greatest Scientific Discoveries of the Century Reveal God. Colorado Springs, CO: Navpress 1995.
In Chapter 1, the author of The Creator and the Cosmos tells us of a meeting he attended in which a distinguished philosopher remarked: “Even the best physicists are lousy philosophers” (p. 11). The author, Hugh Ross, is a physicist and astronomer who, according to the cover, currently serves as the president of Reasons to Believe, a non-profit corporation that produces Christian materials and his weekly TV show.
This expanded second edition of a 1993 version provides a comprehensive look at the current incarnation of the theological argument from design. True to the name of his organization, Ross attempts to provide Christians with scientific reasons to believe in a personal creator. You don’t need faith, Ross seems to say. The God of the Bible is scientific fact.
Though Ross may be a scientist by training, and though his reasons to believe are drawn from the current scientific developments, this is not a book of science. Ross does not examine the evidence and draw conclusions based on the evidence. He already knows his conclusions and, to his credit, states them up-front. To Ross, an uncreated universe has no objective meaning and in such a universe, human life also has no meaning. He refuses to accept that possibility. And so, with that largely emotional assumption, Ross decides that only a created universe is possible- regardless of the data. That data can do nothing else but support his conclusion and so must be bent, as needed, to be consistent with a created universe.
Ross starts with the big bang. He follows Pope Pius XII, who argued before the Pontifical Academy in 1951 that “creation took place in time, therefore, there is a Creator, therefore God exists” (Pius XII. “Modern Science and the Existence of God,” The Catholic Mind 49, March, 1972 pp. 182-92). Ross grossly misrepresents the debate between proponents of the steady-state universe and those of the big bang. He views this as a theological argument in which steady-state cosmologists, like Fred Hoyle and Geoffrey Burbidge, are part of a long-standing hidden agenda of science, to keep God out of the picture. He implies that atheist scientists have participated in some kind of conspiracy to suppress the big bang theory, ignoring that fact that many of its strongest proponents (like me) are atheists who see no sign of God in the cosmos.
The recent discoveries by the COBE satellite and other experiments, which now make the big bang theory as compelling as the theory of evolution, are then treated as a great victories for theism. They are characterized by Ross as “the discovery of the century” (p. 19), fulfilling the prophecies of the Bible. COBE scientist George Smoot is quoted as saying, of his data: “It’s like looking at God” (p. 19). This quotation is a bit more accurate than “seeing the face of God,” as Smoot was widely quoted in the press when the results were first announced. What Smoot claims he said was: “If you’re religious, this is like looking at God.” Ross has quoted him, ever-so-slightly, out of context, implying that Smoot saw God in his data. I have talked personally with Smoot, and he denies any such intention for his words. Throughout this book, Ross subtly and unsubtly rewrites the facts to support his pre-ordained conclusions.
For example, Ross tells us that: “In 1905 a German-born Swiss engineer named Albert Einstein, who studied physics in his spare time, published several papers of enormous significance” (p. 52). Einstein was working in a patent office at the time, so I suppose he was employed more as an engineer than a physicist. True, he was not being paid to do physics. But one of these publications gained him his Ph. D in physics from the University of Zürich, in July of the same year. Honestly, Einstein always was a professional physicist. Except for that brief stint in the patent office, Einstein spent all his working life studying, and revolutionizing physics. Ross apparently wants us to think that Einstein was an outsider who bucked the atheist establishment. According to Ross’s characterization, Einstein acknowledged “the necessity for a beginning” and “the presence of a superior reasoning power” (p. 52). Ross says Einstein held out “unswervingly, against enormous peer pressure, to belief in a Creator” (p. 55). But still Ross cannot claim that Einstein’s God was a personal one as exemplified by Jesus Christ. Einstein’s God was the God of Spinoza- the order of the universe. He was not a theist but a pantheist. Ross grieves that Einstein did not “live long enough to see the accumulation of scientific evidence for a personal, caring Creator” (p. 55).
Ross reviews the evidence for the big bang and concludes that it “determines that the cause of the universe is functionally equivalent to the God of the Bible, a Being beyond the matter, energy, space, and time of the cosmos” (p. 61). He does not list the chapters and verses where the Bible provides this functional equivalence–or gives us any hint of the insight on matter, energy, space, and time that we have gained from twentieth century physics. The cosmology of the Bible is in fact just what you would expect from a primitive desert tribe.
The notion that God does not exist in spacetime, but in some dimension beyond, is common in New Age Christian cosmythology. Ross uses this to deflect Stephen Hawking’s proposal that time itself had a beginning. The New Age Christian God is not eternal; He is beyond eternity. He is not everyplace; He is beyond place. This is also Ross’s answer to the skeptic’s question: Who created the Creator? The Creator is beyond creation.
Ross dismisses my own argument about the spontaneous organization of matter out of the chaos of the big bang as “purely speculative” (p. 84). Ignoring snowflakes and evolution, he says: “Not one example of significant self-generation or self organization can be found in the entire realm of nature” (p. 84). Ignoring quantum mechanics, he says: “Without causation, nothing happens without organization by an intelligent being” (p. 84). My response: Shit happens.
Ross also dismisses Adolf Grünbaum, saying he “stumbles over the nature of time” (p. 84). Grünbaum is philosophy’s leading authority on the nature of time. I am proud to join him, Hawking, and other prominent personages on Ross’s black list.
Hawking also is criticized for the deism expressed in A Brief History of Time, that the laws of physics might eliminate the need for a creator. Ross tosses in the old standbys of Gödel’s incompleteness theorem and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle to say it is impossible to know (pp. 91-92). Of course, Ross still knows since it is all in the Bible. He refers to Romans 1:19-22 as affirming that “even a brilliant research scientist can waste his or her efforts, in this case on theoretically impossible lines of research, if he or she rejects clear evidence pointing to God” (p. 92). I looked it up. There is no mention of research scientists in these verses.
According to Ross, many prominent theologians have heralded quantum mechanics as the greatest contemporary threat to Christianity. However, he tells us that this “Goliath” has been slain by evidence from a recent turn in research that is “sufficient to rule out all theological options but one–the Bible’s” (p. 95). Ross is referring to the anthropic coincidences that, he says, make any conclusion other than an intelligent, personal, creator impossible.
Ross lists 26 parameters that have to fall within narrow ranges “for life of any kind to exist” (p. 118). These range from the strength of the strong nuclear force to the ratio of exotic to ordinary matter. He repeats the expression “any kind of life” several times, while estimating various extremely low probabilities for the combinations needed for our particular form of life.
Recent Christian literature and media reports have claimed that science and religion are converging, and what they are converging on is religion. The claim is based on the highly fallacious argument from probability that Ross parrots in his book. To see how wrong Ross’s argument is, consider the following example. Suppose you shuffle a deck of cards and then deal all fifty-two of them out face-up on the table, in four columns of thirteen. You look at the pattern, with the king of hearts here and the three of clubs there, and exclaim: “Look at how unlikely that pattern is! Somebody must have rigged the deck.”
Ross would, I am sure, respond that the situation with our universe is more akin to one where the cards all lined up in suits, with aces at the top down to kings at the bottom. Such is the order and design that is evident in our cosmos, he would insist. Indeed such a pattern would suggest a rigged deck. But what about other patterns, such as three aces touching one another or one column being ten out of thirteen spades? How unlikely is this, and all the other patterns that might show up in a random shuffle? Every deal of the cards is some pattern, very unlikely by itself in one shuffle but one-hundred percent likely once it is laid out on the table.
Ross has no way of knowing what various shuffles of the parameters and laws of the universe will give some form of life. All he knows about is our particular carbon-based life. And, what is the probability for the existence of carbon-based life? One-hundred percent! This is the only probability Ross has sufficient data to calculate. He cannot calculate the probability of life before the fact, because he does not know what conditions are necessary for all possible forms of life, under all possible conditions-different laws of physics as well as different values of the physical parameters such as the masses of the elementary particles.
We can make some estimates for a universe with the same laws of physics as ours, which we do know something about, but with different values of various basic parameters. One condition for life based on complex chemical elements such as carbon or silicon is that the universe have stars that live long enough for these elements to cook in the stellar interior and then explode into space in a supernova. I have made some estimates and find that long-lived stars are the rule rather than the exception. To see this for yourself, open the location on your World Wide Web browser. There you can create your own universes with different physical parameters. The program cannot (yet) simulate the formation of life, but it demonstrates that long-lived stars are not as dependent upon the “fine-tuning” of the parameters of the universe as proponents of the argument from probability would insist.
The argument for the existence of a personal Creator based on arguments from probability and coincidence are no more valid than William Paley’s divine watchmaker. They are simply the latest coat of varnish on the long-decrepit argument from design. It is too bad that discussions of this sort cannot be done with an honest presentation of the facts unfettered by the need to conform to the traditional prejudices of one particular religious system. This book by High Ross does great damage to the need for an open, non-dogmatic discussion of the issues. As a PhD physicist and astronomer, he does not merit the benefit of the doubt that he is writing from a position of ignorance.
Victor J. Stenger is emeritus professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Hawaii and the author of Not By Design: The Origin of the Universe (Prometheus Books, 1988), Physics and Psychics: The Search for a World Beyond the Senses (Prometheus Books, 1990), and The Unconscious Quantum: Metaphysics in Modern Physics and Cosmology (Prometheus Books, 1995).